“Accepting the Monster into Your Heart”: Horror as a spiritual path

Recently, I was telling some of my college students about a shift in mass entertainment culture. A few years ago, I told them, I began to feel as if “my time,” and also that of my generation — namely, Generation X — had finally arrived. Somewhere around the turn of millennium, the appearance of things like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and a truly excellent Spider-Man movie, the latter of which I and millions of other comic book-loving teens in the 1980s had long expected to arrive with James Cameron in the director’s chair, heralded a sea change. Almost immediately the floodgates were opened, and suddenly television, video games, movies, and music began to bristle with the kinds of things that we had all loved in our youth. And of course comic books themselves rose to a position of major cultural prominence and newfound respect, culminating with Barack Obama’s announcement during his presidential campaign that he was a life-long comics fan with a love for Marvel’s Conan adaptations. Chalk it all up, I told my students, to the fact of a generational changing of the guard. In the entertainment industry, and also everywhere else, key positions of power and influence are increasingly occupied by people of my particular generational bracket and worldview. “Your time,” I told them, “may come next.”

The thing is, I view this generational shift as something that pertains to a lot more than just entertainment culture. It also pertains to everything else, including, pointedly, philosophical and spiritual matters. And so it is that I’m hugely gratified yesterday to stumble across an essay/article at The Huffington Post by Scott Poole, Associate Professor of History at the College of Charleston. Scott and I are friends on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve followed the pre-publication and, now, post-publication news about his new book Monsters in America with great interest, because, as you know, I’m deeply invested in the interface between religion/spirituality and horror. (The book’s official publication date was October 15. It’s from Baylor University Press — whose offices are located a 15-minute drive from where I now sit typing these words.) And now Scott has gone and written an essay about this very subject that’s one of the best things I have read or am likely to read this week, month, and year. It’s virtually a manifesto on the subject as a whole, and it effectively conveys a vivid sense of the massive cultural significance of this deep-dark spiritual link and its proliferating arena of impact.

Read the following cherry-picked excerpts. Then click through and read the whole thing. “Our time,” indeed.

More and more, religious studies scholars are looking at both the sacred themes of horror and the horror that lies at the root of sacred narratives…But these have been primarily academic and scholarly reflections. Could monsters offer a spiritual path? By this I don’t mean as allegories of evil or symbolic threats to the soul, but rather as avatars of the sacred, fit images for spiritual contemplation. Can you accept the monster into your heart?…Horror offers a compelling spiritual path. Horror threatens our boundaries. We fear the knife of the slasher and the claws of the beast because they threaten to rend us, to tear our precious selves to piece. Our repulsion to blood and gore, as Freud himself once noted, is the terror of our dismemberment, the possibility that we will literally come apart. But is the destruction of the self not the heart of authentic spiritual experience? Horror is by nature about excess, about the destruction of the safe parameters, about going off the rails. True spiritual experience offers much the same…Even the nihilistic impulses of horror offer a meaningful, if challenging, mysticism. In the worldview of horror is often found a bleak wisdom that recognizes the frailty and cruelty, as well as the elegance, of the universe…For so many of us, the path of dark mysticism seems more promising than the infantile catechisms currently being proffered by our religious institutions and their leaders. We open our heart to the monster.

Complete story at The Huffington Post: “Accepting the Monster into Your Heart

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on October 18, 2011, in Arts & Entertainment, Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Great post. There’s a lot to this dark mysticism that rings true. Brings to mind the horrific statues of the emaciated, skeletal Buddha.

    I’ve often wondered about the converse. There is an assumption that union with God, the All, the Void, etc. is a good and wondrous thing. What if, as in some of Ligotti’s stories, this dissolution of the self in the All is the ultimate horror? If this is the heart of the authentic spiritual experience, then we may need to re-examine what such an experience means.

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